The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, confirms what many parents have long suspected.
The problem is ``general foolishness and distractions'' for drivers who are just getting to know the rules of the road, said Robert Foss of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
``They will egg one another on to try to run a stop light or say, 'Let's see if you can get it up to 70 miles an hour before the next stop sign,' '' Foss said. But most often, he said it's even simpler things-- animated conversation, for example.``Most of it is things that are no problem for an experienced driver,'' he said.
The study, published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on federal data from 1992 through 1997.
Researcher Li-Hui Chen and her colleagues found that 16-year-olds carrying one passenger were 39 percent more likely than those driving alone to die in a crash. That increased to 86 percent with two passengers and 182 percent with three or more. The rate for 17-year-olds was even higher: 48 percent, 158 percent and 207 percent respectively.
The rate was as much as 21 times higher during early morning hours when passengers were present. Chen also found that the driver death rate increased significantly when the passengers themselves were in their teens or 20s.
While the death statistics relate specifically to drivers, Foss said other studies have shown that accidents involving new teen drivers also often kill or seriously injure passengers and people in other vehicles.
The study was funded in part by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings, coupled with numbers showing teen accident rates increasing after 10 p.m. and even more dramatically after midnight
are prompting safety experts to renew their calls for stiffer limitations on new drivers.
``It's pretty clear that states should not let them drive later at night for a while and not let them drive with teen passengers,'' said Foss, who thinks the curfew should be 10 p.m. ``They need to focus their attention entirely on driving.''
10 states, most recently Washington, restrict the number or age of passengers who can ride with new teen drivers. 28 states have driving curfews, most of them beginning at midnight. New York, which imposes a 9 p.m. curfew on drivers under 18, is among the states with the toughest restrictions.
Previous studies of young drivers in New Zealand, Canada and Florida found that so-called graduated driver licensing reduced crashes by 7 percent to 32 percent, Foss said. Graduated systems impose passenger restrictions or curfews on young drivers.
Foss, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, said that i states with no such rules, ``parents of 16- and 17-year-old drivers would be well advised to impose the restrictions themselves.''
On the Net: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety site: http://www.highwaysafety.org/safetyfacts/safety.htmteens
(Copyright 2000 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)